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The Black Holes of Russia

Ilana, our waitress, stood largely unnoticed on the far side of the small hotel restaurant in Kyzyl, Russia. Eight of us, three Americans and five Russian church leaders, were eating a meal together for the second day in a row. At the time we were the only people in the room.

Kyzyl is the capital of Tuva, a Russian republic in southern Siberia. The eight of us had gathered to talk about the spiritual state of the region and what it would take for one of the city’s two churches to get its own building. As we talked, the Russian believers shared testimonies of the miracles God was doing.

Before we left the café, Pastor Alexei asked Illana if it would be permissible to gather around Pastor Pavel and his wife and pray for them.

“Of course,” she said softly.

After a powerful time of prayer, we prepared to leave. Slipping quietly to the side of the café, Pastor Alexei asked Illana if she had any needs for which he could pray. Privately he and two Americans prayed for her. And in that small restaurant, Illana gave her heart to Christ.

The stereotypical perspective of Russia brings to mind onion-domed Orthodox churches or deep Siberian forests blanketed by waist-deep snow. In reality, Russia is spiritually obscure and widely diverse. In the area of Kyzyl where Illana gave her heart to Christ, an ornate Buddhist temple stands a quarter of a mile down the road. A Tibetan Buddhist prayer mantra is spelled out on the side of a barren mountain north of town.

Russian Pentecostal Union
Russian Pentecostal Union

Millions of people across Russia’s nearly 6.6-million-square-mile area have no access to a clear gospel message. And in that small café, a young girl was ready to hear about the love of Jesus…and respond.

To understand Russia, you need to fathom its immensity and the diversity of its numerous cultures. If Jesus stood on the edge of Russia and asked you to look at its harvest fields, the ripened grain would stretch more than 5,500 miles — about the distance from Washington, D.C., to Los Angeles and back again.

St. Petersburg, Russia, is closer to New York City than it is to Vladivostok, a city on Russia’s eastern shore. Russia stretches across 11 times zones and covers one-eighth of the world’s inhabited land mass.

Russia is massive. The workers are few.

Russian Pentecostal Union
On a journey across Russia, you would see only one Pentecostal church every 2,000 square miles. The spiritual harvest fields roll across snow-covered tundra, pine-forested taiga, majestic mountains, and barren steppes. The grain in those fields is mottled with entrenched atheists, spiritually desperate Buddhists, demonic shamanists, and hardcore Muslims. Russia is defined by its mammoth size, both in geography and spiritual need.

Across this vast countryside, deep spiritual shadows cover the nation. Churches shine in contrast to the darkness, but they are slivers of light and far from each other.

Some areas stand in total darkness: 100,000 towns with no church of any kind. In 25 regions, thousands of mosques dot the area, but there are zero evangelical churches. They are geographical black holes where a gospel witness does not exist.

I remember hearing stories from 25 years ago, just after the Soviet Union collapsed, of the surge of people accepting Christ across Russia. I read incredible testimonies of crusade evangelism, vibrant church planting, and scores of people who were hungry for the gospel. Decades of pent-up spiritual emptiness created an atmosphere of immense harvest. Doors were open for ministry in public schools, Bible distributions, and street evangelism.

As time progressed, ministry in the nation became much more difficult. Today 98.5 percent of Russia’s population still does not know Christ. In major cities like Moscow or St. Petersburg, the total number of Christians is less than half of 1 percent. In other areas, such as the Caucasus region in southern Russia, there are entire people groups with few or no believers.

Not long ago our team learned that a particular people group had one known believer. While this may seem an insignificant number, we rejoiced. A year ago we thought there were no believers among that group.

Despite the enormous spiritual need in Russia, there is a strong Pentecostal Union there, and missionaries and national church leaders are believing for something great. A harvest is ready to be gathered, but it will happen like it did when we met Illana in that café in Kyzyl: through one conversation and friendship at a time.

 

Stigma

For Westerners, few nations have the historical stigma of Russia. People older than 50 remember the Soviet Union, the Cold War, and bomb drills during school days. History books record Russia’s past through vividly colored descriptions: the gold-tinted extravagances of Czar Alexander, the blood-red brutality of Ivan the Terrible, and the gray-toned world of the U.S.S.R.

Russian Pentecostal Union

People younger than 50 are more familiar with perestroika, the destruction of the Berlin Wall, an evolving experiment with democracy, and the current political flexing of power that has dominated the news recently. Current prejudices are reflected in the way Russians are portrayed in books and films — usually as mafia criminals and brutal thugs. What most people know about Russia is related to Vladimir Putin, the Sochi Olympics, and rising political tensions.

But the people of Russia do not fit any of these descriptions. Instead they are just like you and I — ordinary men and women who need to hear about Christ. If you peel back the canvas of history and current media, you see a nation rich in culture, history and challenges.

Len Stolyrchuk
Len Stolyrchuk

Observations

Russia is special to me. It is not a place I visit for short-term travel. My family and I live here and are proud to call our St. Petersburg apartment home.

In my travels across Russia, I spend my time with an incredible team of missionaries and a host of top-notch Russian pastors, all of whom love this nation. Our missionaries want to see the church planted in tough places. Some of them are serving in universities, among unreached ethnic groups, with children and orphans, and in villages and congested cities. Others are involved in developing media ministries, pastoring an international church, and assisting the national fellowship in developing a missions department. All of them serve here because they love this country.

Together we work in partnership with a wonderful group of Russian believers. Russian pastors are sacrificial, faithfully serving in tough locations. They battle cultural opposition, political marginalization, and financial shortages. The executive leadership has enormous vision, with a goal to see 7,000 churches planted over the next few years.

Pastor Edward Grabovenco was elected general superintendent of the national Pentecostal Union six years ago. He oversees a fellowship that has grown from 65 churches to 3,000 churches in the last 25 years. He also pastors a vibrant congregation in Perm, Siberia. He moved to Perm 24 years ago as a young, inexperienced pastor with a passion to reach his city for Christ and plant a church. Today the church is thriving and has planted more than 380 other churches!

Pastor Edward knows Christ is the answer to Russia’s needs, and his vision is solely focused on church planting.

Len Stolyrchuk
Len Stolyrchuk

“It is our responsibility to do everything we can to fulfill God’s calling by being faithful in expanding His kingdom on the earth, always remembering the time is short,” he told a group of church leaders. “With God’s help and in partnership with many, we can do it for the glory of His kingdom.”

Another exceptional pastor, Alexei Rudenky, leads a growing church in Volgograd, a strategic gateway city to the Caucasus Mountain region. In the center of Volgograd, an enormous statue named The Motherland Calls looms over the city. Constructed to honor the bloody Battle of Stalingrad during World War II, it stands as a reminder of the horrific destruction and loss of life that happened there more than 70 years ago.

Alexei and I recently sat inside his church after a full day of multiple services. Each service had been blessed by passionate worship and a powerful prayer time at the altar.

Near us on a wall was a map with Cyrillic letters labeling the hundreds of cities and regions in the southwestern corner of Russia. We shuffled our chairs closer to the map as I asked questions about the area.

As we talked, Alexei would lightly tap various spots on the map with his pen and say, “This region is a Muslim republic—one church. These three republics north of us—still no churches. This area is Buddhist—two churches. This city of a million people—still no church.”

I could hear a sincere brokenness in his voice as the gravity of the spiritual darkness became apparent. Over and over, we looked at regions with virtually no Christian witness, no opportunity for people to hear the gospel. We were staring at a region the size of Texas, and the map showed 50 churches.

“My dream is to start 500 churches across this region in the next few years,” Alexei told me. “We don’t know how we are going to do it, but we must. When can you send missionaries to help us?”

The priority of the Russia area of Eurasia is to find the shadowlands, the darkest regions of Russia that need the light of the gospel.

 

Kabardino-Balkaria

I was in Kabardino-Balkaria, home to the unreached Kabardian people, but I never thought I would be fortunate enough to meet a man in traditional Kabardian dress.

It happened while I was traveling with John*, the local missionary, and Tom, a news reporter, on a journey into the Caucasus Mountain region of Russia. This area, known as the North Caucasus, is home to at least 45 unreached ethnic groups, none of which is more than 0.01 percent Christian. The seven Russian republics located in the North Caucasus are overwhelmingly Muslim, resistant to the gospel, and tightly closed to outsiders. The rocky, mountainous crags of the landscape mirror the stone-hard opposition to church planting.

The purpose of our trip was to scout out the territory, pray over the Muslim villages, and shoot some video and photography. While in the republic of Kabardino-Balkaria, we stopped in a village and visited with the imam who oversaw the local mosque. We were continuing our journey when John spotted the young Kabardian man, sitting on his horse alongside the road.

“Do you want to stop?” John asked. “You don’t see a Kabardian in traditional dress every day. We can ask if he will let us take some photos.”

Len Stolyrchuk

Tom and I were both ready for an adventure, so John quickly made a U-turn.

As we talked to the young man, two more men, also in traditional garb, galloped up on horses. A couple of cars pulled up, and soon a crowd had gathered around us. They were obviously curious about us and asked us dozens of questions. They informed us there had been a wedding the day before, and now the entire clan was gathering for a family reunion. About 70 people were planning to celebrate at a nearby campground.

The next thing we knew, we had been invited to come and join the party. We told them we had only about 40 minutes to spare, but we would be honored to come and meet the rest of the extended family.

The caravan to the family reunion began, starting with three horsemen brandishing swords and followed by five cars with their passengers honking and shouting. John, Tom and I looked at each other, shrugged, and joined in the noisy procession.

In our short time at the reunion, we stood with the circle of spectators who clapped and shouted while two men performed a traditional dance involving tiptoeing and twirling while waving a Kabardian flag high above their heads. We were then invited to the banquet table piled with mounds of lamb and beef, grilled to perfection.

Our 40-minute visit stretched to two hours. We finally made our exit by promising a return trip in the future. Through a seemingly unrelated set of events, a relationship had started with this clan, giving us a potential open door into one of the major Kabardian families in the region.

John, his wife, Emily*, and their two children live in a university city in southern Russia. They purposely chose this venue because it is a strategic location to reach young people from all the North Caucasus republics. Through Bible studies, conversations, and meals, they share a witness of Christ’s grace and live out authentic faith in front of numerous Muslim friends. They and their ministry team have a vision to see hundreds of home churches started in that region of Russia. Each morning they gather to intercede for their Muslim friends, asking the Lord for divine encounters and conversations.

Most areas in the North Caucasus are closed to outsiders, and a person cannot simply drive into a village uninvited. But because of the relationships John and Emily have cultivated, they have been invited to numerous weddings and family events — potential bridges to more opportunities to plant the church.

Relationship was the key to leading a young man from the Ingush people group to Christ. He is the only known Ingush believer.

Here is how John recently shared the miraculous testimony:

We have incredible news: a friend of ours has led the first Ingush to Christ!

We’ve mentioned previously that there was not one known believer from the Ingush ethnic group.

Kazbek (name changed) was reading the Gospels and asking lots of questions, and our friend had a monumental conversation with him.

“I now believe that what I am reading in this Book is true,” Kazbek replied.

We believe this is the first fruit of the coming harvest among the Ingush people! We continue to share with our Ingush friends here and are trusting that 2015 will be the year the first Ingush house church is birthed!

The spiritual darkness of the North Caucasus is intense. The grip of Islam is strong, but authentic faith speaks to people who are spiritually destitute.

A Muslim friend of John’s recently told him, “You are the first real Christian I’ve ever met. I know you genuinely care for me.”

 

Krasnodar

I was in Krasnodar, a university city in southern Russia near the Black Sea, to share a meal with a group of student ministry leaders who had gathered at Joe* and Anne’s* apartment. Anne had made an Italian meal, and the ravenous students who sat around a table in the living room were eager to eat. Soon plates were piled high with pasta and garlic bread, and I was confident that by the end of the meal there wouldn’t be a scrap of food left.

Today’s university students have grown up in a tumultuous era — politically, socially, spiritually and economically. Over the last 25 years, they have lived through a gamut of ups and downs: from early political turmoil to rampant inflation and from the formation of a new national identity to a country with strong national pride. Russia’s young adults have seen the rise of materialism and the demise of socialism.

Religion is part of Russia’s culture, but its rituals of incense and icons have not satisfied the hunger of the heart. Disillusionment now characterizes the majority of students. The church of Russia’s culture hasn’t revealed a daily relationship with a living God, a Jesus who can be known, and a Spirit who can be experienced.

Len Stolyrchuk

The Chi Alpha leadership team who gathered in the apartment in Krasnodar sees hopelessness often, and many of them have been saved from a desperate sense of disillusionment.

Dima was a self-confessed agnostic, a skeptic in matters of faith and life. He often met with Brent, a Chi Alpha team member, just to ridicule and mock him and his faith. Dima was studying science, and there was no room for God in his life. He was willing to hang around the Chi Alpha leaders to practice his English skills, but he wanted nothing to do with Jesus.

Len Stolyrchuk
But the power of a Chi Alpha community and real faith being lived out before him inexplicably drew Dima back again and again. In that tiny apartment in Krasnodar, he shared with me the story of his salvation and the point on his faith journey when he began to see the walls of disbelief crumble around him. He had met with the Chi Alpha team to improve his language, but what changed was his heart. The faith and passion of the Chi Alpha team was magnetic, eventually moving Dima to commit his life to Christ. Listening to his story, it was difficult to believe this young leader had once been so devoid of faith and love.

 

Forgotten

For decades believers around the world fervently prayed for Russia. I remember reading books about Christians who smuggled Bibles into the Soviet Union and was amazed there were people who had never owned the Word of God. I recall seeing news reports of Billy Graham’s 1992 evangelistic services in Moscow and watching thousands respond to the altar call.

During a recent visit with Andrei Panosovets, a pastor and leader from the Siberian city of Chita, I asked him several questions about his region. I was trying to learn where we have a strong core of churches and where we have black holes.

While Pastor Andrei talked about the history of the work in Russia, he shared a vivid story.

“I remember hearing a sermon on the radio in the late 1980s,” he said. “The message was a call to prayer. The speaker challenged the church worldwide to pray intensely for Russia [then the Soviet Union]. Within weeks of that sermon, everything in the country started changing! The Soviet Union collapsed, and for the first time we had true freedom of religion. We could preach openly.”

As he shared those words, a sense of heaviness came over me. I realized that 25 years ago, the majority of Christians around the world stopped praying for Russia with the same intensity as they had previously. Their prayers had been answered, and freedom had come to share the gospel. They had assumed political freedom was equivalent to spiritual freedom. They were wrong.

There is one answer for the spiritual shadowlands of Russia: Jesus Christ. Russia needs a spiritual awakening, a move of God that will penetrate the darkest corners of the country.

Church planters are needed to help build beacons of light across this vast land. But in order to be effective, believers must be unified in prayer, interceding for a move of God and stepping out in faith that the black holes of Russia will be filled with beacons of light. Missionaries and national believers in Russia need prayer — not that they may be free of opposition, but that they will have the courage to stand and commit to seeing the church established in the North Caucasus, in Siberia, in universities, and in forgotten villages.

Len Stolyrchuk

Those of us who serve in Russia are praying that God will once again call a wave of people to come to this nation. We want to see the kingdom of God established in the shadowlands and black holes that cover much of this nation. In partnership with Pentecostal churches in Russia, we want to launch student ministries in every university. We are asking God for visionary workers to join with us to plant churches in the spiritually resistant Muslim regions, in the traditionally Buddhist states, and among the entrenched agnostic districts of this country.

No matter how dark the shadows or the black holes may be, they can never stand against the light of Jesus Christ reflected by His church.

*Name has been changed.

ANDY R.

serves as Russia area director for AGWM.

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